This week should have been one that everyone associated with Dundalk FC was looking forward to due to the return of the SSE Airtricity League.
Friday night’s game against St Patrick’s Athletic, taking place some 140 days after it was initially supposed to, was never going to really be the same given Covid-19 restrictions but following the passing of Harry Taaffe at the weekend it has almost become an afterthought right now.
Harry was a lot of things at Dundalk FC: friend, colleague, mentor, advisor, cameraman, videographer, groundsman, volunteer, staff member and almost an amateur psychologist at times. Yet none of those titles either collectively or individually do justice to just how big a role he played at the club.
Football can be a great game at times and a cruel one at others but through good times and bad every club needs a Harry Taaffe, someone with that X Factor to help join all the little pieces together.
I lamented recently in conversation about all of the tales that had been lost to history due to the deaths of great club chairmen down through the years. Just imagine the stories Jim Malone, Enda McGuill, Eamon Hiney and Des Denning could tell if they were still with us.
Harry may never have held the title of chairman, nor would he have ever aspired to, but he carried many of the characteristics of those who had. His love for the club was unquestionable, his influence undeniable and, oh boy, what you wouldn’t give right now to be able to sit down with him and talk about his journey with the club.
He was, in many ways, the modern day Mickey Fox – someone who would turn their hand to just about anything once Dundalk FC would benefit. Harry could be the most helpful person around at times but was someone who would equally defend the club to the hilt when required – just ask the BATE Borisov officials who he quickly put in their place when they tried to belittle Dundalk on one of their visits to Belarus in the last few seasons.
It was down to the likes of Harry that there is even a Dundalk FC around right now. He was pivotal in the Save Our Club campaign just eight years ago and one of the many great stories from recent years was seeing him there with the side for title celebrations, cup wins, civic receptions and many big European nights having scrapped so hard a short while before just to ensure the club would see another day yet alone another season.
He not only threw himself into the cause but brought his family along for the ride as well. His son Shane was regularly alongside him in the gantry while his wife Maria and daughters Orla and Elaine have also been near fixtures at Oriel Park over the years with the girls of the family becoming particularly synonymous with the club shop. He was an adoring grandad too and there haven’t been too many trips up the Carrick Road over the last few years where you didn’t see at least one of them along the way, usually decked out in club colours.
Dundalk has strived to connect more and more with the community in recent years and in his own way Harry was one of the leading links in this regard. He wore his Dundalk FC gear with pride and had as much love for his town as he had for the club it represented.
It will be difficult to imagine Oriel Park now without him present. That infectious smile that got him away with so much will be no more. I got to share a couple of press boxes with Harry down through the years and you’d always gravitate towards him in the knowledge that the next couple of hours would be fun regardless of the fare on the field.
In that regard, he played such a key role on the club’s many trips at home and abroad over the years. I can only imagine the role he played in lifting spirits amongst players on the journey home after a defeat but equally I’ve seen first hand how good he can be at lightening the mood of the camp during that dull period of hanging around before a big game. Dundalk FC’s various owners in recent years have invested a lot into the club but that sort of thing can be priceless and invaluable. That’s why the likes of Stephen Kenny and Vinny Perth kept Harry around – they knew and appreciated how important he was – with the latter even commenting to me recently on the sterling work Harry had done in getting the club’s grass training pitch in such pristine condition.
He was universally loved by the players as well, providing comic relief at just the right moment on many an occasion but also advice when it mattered too.
Perhaps the biggest reason for Dundalk’s success of the last few years has been the culture at the club – that bond in the dressing room with everyone buying into what had to be done to be the best. Harry might never have kicked a ball himself for the club he adored but he played as big a role in cultivating that family ethos at Oriel Park as anyone.
We can but hope he knew in his final days just how much he was loved and appreciated both by his immediate family and the football one.
Players and managers come and go at football clubs. Some get remembered, others quickly forgotten but it’s the Harry Taaffe’s of this world that make the likes of Dundalk FC what they are.
A little sparkle and magic will now be permanently missing from Oriel Park and the place will be much poorer for it.
All we have now are the memories and the ones Harry helped create deserve to be remembered.
He was the ordinary guy who helped his home town club stay afloat in its darkest days and helped them to reach truly unexpected heights in its brightest.
Sadly, having read a series of tributes in recent days, Harry will probably never truly know how much he was appreciated and loved but all we can say now is thank you.
You’ll be truly missed old friend and this week, in particular, will be amongst the hardest.
When you next pull on that Dundalk jersey or coat, when you next sit down to watch your team this Friday or at any stage over the next few weeks and, hopefully sooner rather than later, when you get to go and cheer them on in person again give an extra little roar and appreciate how lucky we are to have a club like this regardless of how good or bad the results are at any given stage.
It’s what Harry would have wanted.
He was the modern day Mr Dundalk FC and the club will be a lot poorer for his absence.
We’ll miss you Harry but we certainly won’t forget you. RIP.